Of America’s 401 national parks, the most heavily visited is Great Smoky Mountains. So like Yellowstone, Yosemite, or any famous park renowned for its beauty, the peace in the Smokies has been somewhat disturbed by its popularity. Just ask Bill Bryson, who paints a hilarious picture of this in his travel memoir A Walk in the Woods. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid the Smokies altogether; you’ll just have to go with a certain understanding, and a few tips, such as these:
Where to Stay:
We recommend you not to stay in downtown Gatlinburg. It’s very close to the park on the Tennessee side (versus the North Carolina side), so it’s an obvious choice logistically, but please, for all that is holy, do not stay downtown. Gatlinburg is like Coney Island, but without the beach, boardwalk, history, or nostalgia—just a bunch of greasy funnel cake, crappy arcades, crappier souvenirs, and general obnoxiousness. Do yourself a favor and find a quiet hotel further away, like Deer Ridge Mountain Resort, whose misty morning views and hot tub are just what we all need sometimes. Or bring your gear and camp in the park.
Consider skipping Clingmans Dome:
This is the highest point in the park, and the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, so the views are superbly panoramic (when it’s not totally foggy, hence the name “Smokies”). Unfortunately, the dome is also jammed with people, because it’s just a half-mile walk from the parking lot along a paved incline. If you want to commune with nature, you might as well find another spot.
Do your research on less crowded trails:
If you do visit Clingmans Dome, the nearby Forney Ridge trail will feel like a nice breather. Or consider the Rainbow Falls trail, which is 5.4 miles of moderate difficulty to the 80-foot waterfall and back. There may not be any panoramic views, but the waterfall is a very peaceful place to stop, reflect, and maybe have lunch.
Bring enough food and water:
This seems like a no-brainer, but since the park is so huge, you might be driving quite a distance to reach your chosen trailhead, and then it will be a big pain in the ass to drive out for food or water, and then you’ll be in Gatlinburg again. So do a little planning and bring more than you think you need, plus insect repellent, sunscreen, etc.
Try not to resent the park’s popularity:
If you’re curious about the Smokies, try not to let this advice sour your mood before you even arrive. Just relax and enjoy the mountains. They are gorgeously smoky, huge and rolling and richly green, brilliantly orange and red and yellow in the fall. Overall, a perfectly heartwarming bit of Appalachia that’s earned every bit of its popularity.
How was your experience in the Smoky Mountains?